Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2010
Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver Rembrandt's Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 532 pp.; 47 color ills.; 198 b/w ills. Cloth $100.00 (9780271034065 )
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In 1661, in his mid-fifties, Rembrandt van Rijn painted himself as the Christian apostle Paul (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Typical for the artist, this late work circled back to an interest that had occupied him since the beginning of his career (e.g., Two Old Men [Peter and Paul?] in Disputation [1628, Melbourne]). Typically, too, Rembrandt took the opportunity to transform this exotically garbed figure into an essay in unsparing self-reflection. Significantly, however, of nearly seventy self-portraits this is the only one in which the artist assumed the guise of an identifiable Biblical character. Thus, his self-identification with Paul is not to be taken lightly. And, indeed, it turns out to be the essential clue to a lifetime of Biblical representations. Pauline theology, distilled in the crucible of the Reformation and promoted by the Dutch Reformed Church, forms the core of Rembrandt’s personal belief system, or, at least, of the complex iconography laid out in his numerous representations of Biblical themes, as explored in this remarkable study co-authored by Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver (see 356, 364, fig. 210).

In truth, nobody knows what Rembrandt really believed. He left no writings about his faith, and, like most artists of his time, he must have approached his paintings and prints as marketable objects more than personal testimony. Documents indicate that his family and marital ties, like those of many of his contemporaries, blended Catholic, Calvinist, Remonstrant, and Mennonite roots, while his business relationships were broader still, encompassing Jews as well as Christians of various denominations. He is not documented as a fully enrolled member of any church, yet throughout his career he devoted a substantial proportion of his creative energy to the representation of Biblical themes. Thus, the conclusion drawn by Perlove and Silver, that Rembrandt “remained a committed, if ecumenical, Christian” (363), is probably as close as we can come to describing the artist’s personal faith.

The authors wisely concentrate instead on situating Rembrandt’s religious imagery within its historical context. As the title of chapter 1 suggests, the Dutch Republic was “a religious stew” in which emerging Protestant factions struggled to establish their independence from Catholic tradition, and from each other. While the authors frequently invoke Rembrandt’s knowledge of visual tradition (especially prints by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden, many of which he kept in his own collection), their primary interest is in the artist’s cultural context as revealed in literary sources. A central point of reference is the Statenbijbel, the authoritative Calvinist edition of the Bible commissioned by the States General after the Synod of Dordt (1618–19) and completed in 1637. Since the Statenbijbel appeared only mid-way through Rembrandt’s career, he must, in fact, have been brought up on an earlier edition, but its extensive annotations shed light on contemporary interpretations of difficult passages and demonstrate the painstaking efforts of Reformed theologians to clarify for novice readers the sometimes oblique language of scripture. Also essential for Rembrandt was the first-century author Flavius Josephus, whose history of the Jews was translated from Latin into Dutch in the 1630s (for a judicious assessment of the books in Rembrandt’s library, see Amy Golahny, Rembrandt’s Reading: The Artist’s Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003).

A prevailing theme of Rembrandt’s Faith is the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. Perlove and Silver show how Rembrandt envisioned the world of Abraham, David, and Jesus by combining close study of the Bible’s descriptive passages (supported by Josephus and other sources) with observations of the Jewish life around him (53–61). (Surprisingly little is said about the presence of Turkish or Muslim visitors in Amsterdam, given Rembrandt’s fascination with turbans and other “Oriental” costume elements.) The authors maintain that Rembrandt’s accurate knowledge of things Jewish owes much to his acquaintance with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (105 and passim), for whom he etched four book illustrations in 1655 (134–136). The extent of this relationship, along with the presumption that Rembrandt felt exceptional sympathy for his Jewish neighbors, has recently been challenged (compare Michael Zell, Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, with Gary Schwartz, The Rembrandt Book, New York: Abrams, 2006). Perlove and Silver do not go so far as to reject (as Schwartz does) Rembrandt’s affinity for the Jews, but they situate it within a multiconfessional community of scholars whose writings testify in some cases to philo-semitism but in others to a more insidious practice of befriending Jewish colleagues like Menasseh in the hope of converting them. They describe both Rembrandt’s evident fascination with Jewish lore and his tendency to create oppositional groups of characters in his Christian narratives: disciples, including Jewish converts (such as the two Josephs—Mary’s husband and the Arimathean who buried Jesus in his own tomb) who turn toward Christ, and stubborn unbelievers (Pharisees and Sadducees) who whisper dissent or literally turn away from the miracle unfolding before them.

A key motivation for Christian Hebraists, as demonstrated by Perlove in earlier publications, was the hope of bringing about the Second Coming. Some millenarian calculations predicted that this event would take place in 1656 (59). The authors associate this belief with Rembrandt’s increased production of religious imagery in the mid-1650s, but they stop short of suggesting that Rembrandt himself was a millenarian. Rather, they propose that his mission was to promote “an interdenominational unity” based on the irenic model of the early apostolic church (364). They argue that Rembrandt took a special interest in typology—the reading of the Old Testament as prophecy and the New Testament as its fulfillment, by means of which Old Testament stories (such as Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) resonate with counterparts in the New (such as God’s sacrifice of his own son on the Cross). Rembrandt not only mastered familiar typological connections, well-established in visual sources such as the Bibla pauperum, but also invented new ones (365). His associative thinking reveals itself in intimate details: the empty salver set to catch the blood of Isaac in Abraham’s Sacrifice (etching, 1655, B. 35, fig. 52) is the same one that holds the bloody crown of thorns in Descent from the Cross (etching, 1642, B. 82, fig. 53).

Typology and the conviction that the Old Dispensation must give way to the New may help to explain Rembrandt’s unusual devotion to Christological subjects. Significantly, only one chapter of the book focuses exclusively on his Old Testament images, while the life of Christ occupies three. This balance counters the tendency of most scholars of Dutch religious art to emphasize Old Testament themes as more congenial to Protestant viewers. The singularity of Rembrandt’s New Testament imagery is difficult to estimate based on the evidence presented here since, like most studies of Rembrandt, this book is so thoroughly occupied with explicating his work that very little attention is given to contemporaneous artists outside his immediate circle. Yet, its insights and extensive bibliography offer a valuable platform for broader investigations.

In constructing the theological framework for Rembrandt’s art, Perlove and Silver weave an intricate web of references encompassing Protestant sermons and treatises (John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, Gijsbertus Voetius, Johannes Wtenbogaert, Simon Episcopius), devotional poetry (Constantijn Huygens, Joost van den Vondel, Jeremias de Decker, John Donne), Jewish texts (the Mishnah of Talmud, the Mishneh of Maimonides, the Kabbalistic Zohar), and the writings of numerous English scholars (John Lightfoot, Samuel Lee, John Durie, Hugh Broughton, Henry Jessey), many of whom published in Dutch or had ties with Amsterdam. This wealth of sources demonstrates the centrality of hermeneutics in the intellectual life of Rembrandt’s time, but when cited to explain his imagery, it can, at times, be somewhat overwhelming. Could a busy artist really have read or known about all these sources? And if not, then do they tell us more about the intentional meanings of Rembrandt’s work or about the complex milieu in which it circulated? A more selective use of quotations, with a clearer explanation of how specific texts relate to the artist and to each other, might have proved easier to follow and ultimately more convincing. Meanwhile, the more pragmatic and aesthetic motivations of Rembrandt’s practice seem somewhat overlooked. For instance, if Rembrandt showed no great sympathy for his Jewish contemporaries—in whose company he would have noted the persistence of picturesque attributes such as earlocks and prayer shawls—we can posit that he observed them with the objective eye of an artist on the lookout for good material. To be sure, aesthetic choices can also carry meaning. Even something as fundamental as Rembrandt’s dramatic deployment of chiaroscuro gains resonance when we recall that Saint Paul refers to Christian believers as “children of light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). Yet, after all, Rembrandt was an artist and not a theologian, and some of his decisions must simply have been prompted by the wish to create a satisfying composition or to bring a story vividly to life. Likewise, his ecumenical approach to iconography, especially in printmaking, has the practical advantage of positioning his work to appeal to the broadest possible market.

Rembrandt’s Faith is beautifully produced, with crisp, legible illustrations of nearly all the works discussed. This is important, because interpretations often turn on minute but telling details: figures and architectural motifs sketched on copperplates no larger than a credit card, or background elements of a painting enshrouded in shadow. The authors have done the hard work of close, attentive looking, and what they discover yields fresh and significant insights while also prompting us to share their delight in observing Rembrandt’s endlessly fertile imagination at work. The tiny figures in the early Presentation in the Temple (etching, 1630, B. 51, 10.3 × 7.8 cm.) include a hobbling beggar, hostile Pharisees, and an elegant, winged angel whispering in the ear of the aged Hannah, all of which reveal Rembrandt’s careful reading of scripture (200–201 and fig. 136). In The Supper at Emmaus, Jesus breaks a loaf of braided challah bread (311–313, painting, Paris, 1648, fig. 193; etching, 1654, B. 87, fig. 194). In The Visitation, a peacock perched by the door symbolizes Resurrection, while the servant removing Mary’s cloak is one of several African figures whose presence in these scenes reflects both the hope of universal conversion and the global reach of Dutch trade (1640, Detroit, fig. 106; see also 239, fig. 149). (Given such sharp observations, occasional errors are encountered with surprise. For instance, the infant Jesus cradled by his mother in Federico Barocci’s Virgin in the Clouds, a source for Rembrandt’s etching of the same theme [1641, B. 61], gazes engagingly at the viewer, but Rembrandt’s infant does not, thus compromising the meaning proposed [fig. 27–28]. But such editorial oversights are few.)

An intriguing observation is the authors’ identification of the lost Jerusalem Temple as the stage upon which many of Rembrandt’s Biblical narratives are set (183–187, 227–228 and passim). The lofty, pillared halls in which scenes like The Presentation in the Temple (etching, 1630, fig. 136), Christ and the Adulteress Woman (1644, London, fig. 155), or Peter and John Healing the Cripple (etching, 1659, fig. 163) take place are shown to correspond with remarkable fidelity to specific locations in the ancient complex, such as the Parhedrin Chamber (233) and the Court of Women (200), as reconstructed by antiquarians in Rembrandt’s time (fig. 137, 138, 164). Costumes worn by the temple’s inhabitants include faithfully rendered accessories, such as the tallith and tzittzit (214–215), associated then and now with Jewish attire and ritual practice. This framework convinces because the artist’s adoption of these details can be justified in both aesthetic and iconographic terms: it enhances the authenticity of the narrative while at the same time creating a picturesque world of smoky incense and glittering vestments that must have enchanted Rembrandt’s viewers—the same Christian public for whom the impressive Portuguese Synagogue, constructed in Amsterdam in 1675, later became a popular tourist attraction (54–55). As for Jesus himself, Rembrandt tried his best to visualize the savior’s human features (“naar het leven,” as described in the artist’s inventory of 1656); the fact that the result touched a nerve with conservatives who viewed this Jesus as a bit too Jewish in appearance (314) only shows that he came close to succeeding. But the most engaging aspect of these images is the diverse and conflicted cast of characters that populates them: a polyglot community reflecting the artist’s perceptive insights into human nature as well as the complex society in which he worked. Unlike Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt clearly preferred shepherds to kings (175).

Like guides in the ancient Temple, Perlove and Silver lead their readers deftly through the complexity and richness of Rembrandt’s religious environment, always keeping the artist’s work at the center of their focus. This book deserves to be read carefully, so that its erudite and revealing analyses—along with the intricate details of the works it explicates—can be thoroughly absorbed. Having achieved the ambitious goal of presenting the first comprehensive overview of Rembrandt’s religious imagery, Rembrandt’s Faith is sure to stand as the definitive book on this topic for many years to come.

One of this book’s co-authors, Larry Silver, is Field Editor for Northern European Art at caa.reviews. He was not involved in the editorial process for this review.

Stephanie S. Dickey
Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.